WARNING: In this article we will make some reference to events in later episodes. It’s pretty much unavoidable since this show has a lot of foreshadowing. So beware, this is your spoiler warning for all of Yuri on Ice.
Green: I’ve been debating how to start this series because I am by no means an expert on cinematography (or even much of a novice), but Yuri on Ice has a lot of quality in terms of visual storytelling that even an amateur like me can appreciate. That said, I suspect a lot of my interpretations are going to be flawed, missing nuance or downright wrong. So here’s what I’ll do. As a fan of the show and a person who likes art and conjecture, I’ll present the things I caught watching the show. Purple will comment on my ideas to let me know when I’m totally off base, and add things I may have missed.
Green: And if you see someplace I’m totally wrong, or missed something big, please leave a comment and we can discuss it. Maybe I can even learn a thing or two. Now, without further ado, here are my observations from the first part of episode 1.
Green: I still feel like there is something I’m missing in the little intro scene before the OP with Yuri and Viktor. But what I do notice is it’s a nice visual representation of their relationship, such as it is, up to the start of the show. Viktor skates, and Yuri watches in awe, then something like happiness and finally a little competitive edge as, at the very end, Viktor reaches out toward camera (where Yuri is) mirroring how he will reach out to Yuri by the end of the episode. I don’t really know what to make of the extreme dark and light. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say it’s supposed to convey an sense of just how little Yuri really knows about Viktor. He’s still a big mystery at this point, and it shows as he skates into and out of the light.
Purple: I agree with the mystery angle. Viktor looks gorgeous in this scene. In many ways these opening shots put us in Yuri’s shoes. We, the audience, want to see more of this beautiful, yet-unnamed skater we are given but glimpses of.
Green: By the way, thank you Purple for replacing some of my screenshots that weren’t working out with GIFs. Why don’t I get any cool skills?
Purple: This scene I would argue also has a touch of voyeurism. We learn later on in the first episode that Yuri has been following Viktor in the media for years. These glimpses of Viktor are mirrored in the scene as Viktor passes across the light of the windows. Yuri is in the dark looking on, his experience of Viktor mediated by what the light shines on. The light shining on Yuri’s face reminds me of someone sitting in a dark room looking at a screen. The simplified color tones in this scene reinforce Yuri’s simple understanding of Viktor at the start of the show.
Green: After the teaser, we get a pretty basic establishing shot of the venue. I thought that it was nice that they established the season and mood in a way here too. It’s a bit somber and so of course it’s snowing. Confusingly, they include a label “Sochi Grand Prix Final” even though a sign on the building conveys almost all of that information to us already. But otherwise not a lot is going on here.
Green: Immediately we get a shot of Viktor from a low angle (so we have to look up at him, like the tiny unimportant mortals we are). He’s skating toward some photographers literally on their knees before him. The audience in the packed stands encircling him are nothing but tiny dots of color in the background. Also, Viktor is out in the light while everyone else is in the dark. Right from the start it’s clear that this guy is really important and above everyone.
Purple: And also he’s alone. He’s surrounded people but they’re all faceless and distant.
Green: The next sequence, where he gives a little spin before standing confidently in center frame, further emphasizes Viktor’s easy confidence and his fame. I don’t know the exact significance, but I also notice he has a distinctive pink blue and yellow color scheme going on. It could just be that he’s a pretty dude, so he needs to look well composed in terms of color too.
Purple: He is a pretty dude. I’ll also point out that while he does look comfortable, time and time again in the series we see evidence that Viktor is just good at putting on a public persona.
Green: After the commentators start to talk about Yuri, we cut to a shot of him, but unlike Viktor, Yuri looks small and unremarkable. There are other people all around the shot taking up the foreground, and Yuri is the only one sitting, hunched down. He’s also the only one wearing black. The shot is even a little claustrophobic with him crammed toward the bottom corner of the frame. Yuri stands out from the people around him, but not in the way Viktor does. After he looks at his phone it becomes clear that this is the guy the commentators are talking about, and you get a quick frame in the news article on his phone establishing that the man standing next to him is his coach.
Green: The high angle here makes Celestino look a little menacing. It also makes Yuri look even more pathetic, hunched down over his phone. Watching the way Yuri reads off those negative headlines without much surprise gives a little hint of his self-deprecating attitude, and of the fact that he’s used to screwing up like this.
Purple: He’s also sitting next to a trash can. Feel free to draw conclusions from that.
Green: This isn’t really cinematographically interesting, but it is certainly interesting from a storytelling perspective. If you pay close attention, even while Yuri is saying he’s nothing special as a Japanese figure skater, he is on not one but both of the banner images for figure skating on the JSF website. Hardly a “dime-a-dozen” in anyone else’s estimation. Even this early in the show, the creators bring out the disconnect between Yuri’s self-perception and reality.
Green: After that little sequence is over you see Yuri in the background of a shot again, walled off behind two sets of barriers (separated from other people). This is imagery that will recur often in the show, especially around Yuri.
Green: Finally, you see Yuri walking down a hall from behind, and he suddenly turns off to the left. This might be my favorite shot in the whole episode. It’s a metaphor for Yuri’s career right now. He had a path laid out in front of him, he was on it and now he’s not. Notice the rug even accentuates the path, and it turns in the opposite direction of the way Yuri does.
Green: As Yuri walks off the path and out of the shot, Yurio steps onto the path and into the shot. Do I even need to say anything more about this? It’s so perfect. But I will say a little more, just to be clear. Yuri is about to quit skating right as Yurio is graduating from juniors, taking the path Yuri is leaving behind.
Green: Now we get our first real look at Yurio. They emphasize an air of mystery for him as an unexplained newcomer, his face partially covered and the dark hallway behind him.
Green: None of the shots from the beginning of this scene really stands out on its own, but together they tell a nice little story, so I’ll just make a few notes on each one. We start looking at Yuri in the stall from outside (behind a physical barrier). Then we get a peek inside, and are looking down on Yuri with his head bowed… agian. After he realizes everyone he knows was watching him skate he gives a nervous laugh and we’re immediately out of the stall again, and further away. The camera also has Yuri off center, indicating how the realization put him off balance. As he calms down, the camera re-centers on him. Then, when we are allowed to peek back in again the shot is close, but we can’t see everything, just Yuri’s mouth as his smile drops and then his lip starts to quiver. The shot hides his face, and Yuri is still holding back his feelings, even if they are a little obvious. But he tries to build his composure back up to end the phone call. This is also the first time we see Yuri bail when a situation gets too emotional.
Green: Finally we’re back out of the stall again. But instead of an empty bathroom we get a really interesting shot that I can’t for the life of me interpret. I swear something must be going on here from the drippy sinks to the shot of Yurio in reflection. But I don’t know what, so moving right along.
Purple: Maybe it’s like a horror movie! The victim crying, hiding in a stall while a hooded figure creeps up, seen in the reflection of a bathroom mirror!
Green: This is me rolling my eyes. There is this distinct red-blue color scheme shared by Yurio and the bathroom. It really emphasizes the distance Yuri feels from everyone. (This was actually an idea I heard the first time watching this video. It was pretty interesting. You should watch it.)
Purple: Yuri not fitting into the color scheme of Yurio/the bathroom serves to set him specifically apart. He doesn’t look like he belongs and he doesn’t feel like he belongs, in this case he doesn’t feel like he belongs in the skating world. How you read the rest of the bathroom scene given that idea I think has a lot of interesting implications.
Green: This scene always makes me want to cry. Finally we get to see Yuri from a low angle, but instead of feeling like he’s in control, it’s the opposite. Because the camera is so close to Yuri it more gives the scene an intimate feel that just makes watching someone cry like that… unbearable. Also the way the stall stands out so much from the wall behind gives a claustrophobic feel, like the walls are closing in on him. It conveys a distress nearing panic.
Green: And then Yurio literally tries to kick open the barrier Yuri has built around himself.Yuri is so shocked he literally jumps out of his seat (or I guess toilet? That seems appropriate for how he’s feeling, actually.) Because if you haven’t noticed by now, all the physical barriers around Yuri are representations of how he walls himself off emotionally from others. Boom! The entire plot is kicked off! I am so sorry. I just couldn’t help myself.
Purple: That was terrible.
Green: At this point, the camera looks up Yurio from Yuri’s perspective. Giving us an idea of how he sees Yurio and finally we find out who this scary guy is. A kid… from the junior division? But Yuri is still pretty caught off guard and intimidated by Yurio’s aggressive attitude and reputation. We get a stereotypical (for anime at least) eye close up to emphasize that. And then finally we see the two of them together. Before I go on, this shot establishes Yurio on the left and Yuri on the right. The composition is maintained in every shot throughout the scene, emphasizing the feeling of conflict between them. I thought this was a nice little touch, so I wanted to mention it.
Green: At first the extreme low angle here confused me a bit, but when you realize how small Yurio is physically compared to Yuri, any other angle would have made that fact blindingly obvious and undermined how intimidating he could be. We see Yuri backed up against a wall (of bathroom stalls, but still), posture stiff, leaning back just a little. Yurio looks calm, he leans into Yuri’s personal space. This is another thing you see a lot in this show. People getting close to Yuri emotionally (either in a positive or negative way) also invade his personal space. It’s a metaphor they even discuss explicitly in a later episode, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Green: You see Yurio literally pushing Yuri out of the shot here, as he yells at Yuri that he should retire. Yurio who is a young skater, ready to take his place, reflecting the same sentiment Yuri thinks a few moments later.
Purple: Recall how Yuri’s color scheme sets him apart in the bathroom while Yurio fits right in? And how this emphasizes that Yuri feels out of place as a figure skater? One way to read this scene is that the skating world is aggressively knocking on Yuri’s door. When Yuri answers, he’s told by an aggressive little Russian kid to get out of the sport.
Purple: But I think there are some interesting clues in this scene as to how Yuri and Yurio’s relationship will play out later in the series. In Episode 12, there is a flashback to the Sochi GPF where Yurio is watching Yuri skate. Yurio wonders what it would be like to see Yuri skate a perfect program. Several times throughout the series we see Yurio motivating Yuri to be competitive and step-up his game. I think showing Yurio force Yuri out of his dark hiding place and into the light, to be seen, sets up this aspect of their relationship. While Yurio explicitly says he wants Yuri out of competition, there is a running theme in the series regarding the relation between rivalry and inspiration. In some ways, Yurio kicking at the door could be seen as a challenge to bring Yuri out of hiding. The skating world, and Yurio in particular, wants to see Yuri skate his very best.
Green: There is also a funny little moment at the end of this scene. They cut down to the ground, as we are reminded that Yurio was up on his tiptoes. Maybe indicating that he was getting a little ahead of himself there, threatening people who are actually above him. Humorously, this is really the first and last time Yurio successfully intimidates anyone in the show.
Green: As Yuri thinks about what Yurio said they setup this nice shot with Yuri framed in red to the left and blue to the right. Yuri is torn between giving up and trying to move forward.
Purple: Yuri thinks to himself how easily replaceable he is as a skater, and we cut to the next scene…
Green: As he leaves with Celestino, Yuri walks off to the left.
Purple: And then Morooka calls out to him insisting that Yuri can’t retire yet. People are trying to get through to Yuri and here we have one of the skating announcers explicitly asking him not to quit.
Green: At this point a pattern is emerging… Recall that earlier when Yuri walked off the path (that turned to the right) he went left. They setup his internal conflict visually as left versus right. (This is a fun idea I learned about from this video. All of this guys videos exceptional if you have any interest in cinematography.) Morooka calls out to Yuri from the right. Also Morooka’s expression mirrors Yurio’s from a moment before, setting up a sort of visual balance. Yuri feels pushed in two directions.
Green: Which you can see as he thinks about what Morooka said. To his left in the background is a door (an exit), and he looks off to the right to consider his future skating.
Green: But looking off to the right he doesn’t really see a future for himself. Notice how the bar on the window conveniently blocks his line of sight.
Green: After he hears Viktor call out his name and realizes he was in fact talking to the other Yuri, he feels distant from Viktor. Notice our friend the physical barrier here, again separating Yuri from other people.
Purple: Stupid physical barriers!
Green: And when Viktor notices Yuri watching him and suggests they take a photo together, this is Yuri’s reaction; something between fear and disgust. And it makes perfect sense when you see how much Yuri has been working to separate himself from others. I’m going to go a little off the rails here speculation-wise but I can only imagine that Yuri feels like being together with Viktor in a picture would make it clear to the world how inferior he is, next to a god like that. So as much as he admires Viktor, the idea of getting close to him is repulsive. This scene makes it as clear as anything; Yuri isn’t being separated from others. Yuri is walling himself off.
Purple: Even as everyone, including Viktor, reaches out to him.
Green: Here is the second time that Yuri bails because he can’t handle an emotional situation. Don’t turn this into a drinking game, kids, you’ll be puking before episode 3. (Purple: Too late!) Anyhow, Yuri is so thrown off by this that it actually sends him off to the right, an indication of the role Viktor will play in bringing him back to skating. And while we’re at it, can you count the number of barriers dividing Viktor and Yuri? It’s more than one, as Yuri builds up that world class social barrier of his.
Green: But don’t worry, not two seconds later he’s headed off in the wrong direction again. Alone. He still has a lot of work to do.
Green: And there you have it. My incredibly over detailed analysis of the cinematography of the first… oh god, this was only the first five minutes of the show? And that counts the opening theme too. Well, maybe the later episodes won’t have quite so much to cover. We’ll see how it goes. If you like this kind of analysis (or if you don’t), please let us know. I really loved how quickly and well they established the characters for this show. And I know there are some amazing scenes coming up, even just in episode 1. So I’m looking forward to doing more of this in the future.
Purple: Thanks for reading!